- Associated Press - Monday, September 29, 2014

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - A union representing New Mexico school workers filed a lawsuit Monday seeking to invalidate a new teacher-evaluation system that places a heavy emphasis on student performance on standardized tests.

The National Education Association-New Mexico filed the lawsuit in state district court in Santa Fe against Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera.

National NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia expressed support for the New Mexico lawsuit. “We need to make sure we are using our schools to foster and promote the success of all students, and ending toxic testing that ignore true measurements of success is a crucial step in that process,” she said in a statement.

The evaluation system was implemented through regulations by the Public Education Department after Republican Gov. Susana Martinez was unable to win legislative approval in 2011 and 2012 of proposals for overhauling how teachers are rated.

The lawsuit contends the evaluation plan is unconstitutional because its requirements conflict with state laws governing school personnel.

“The challenged regulations fundamentally upset the balance of power prescribed by statute between local school districts and the PED,” the lawsuit said.

Department spokesman Larry Behrens said in a statement the administration will fight “another attempt to uphold the old, broken system because our students deserve better.”

“Not too long ago, the NEA agreed that New Mexico needed an evaluation system that put students first,” Behrens said. “Now, perhaps because of an upcoming election, they feel the need to frivolously challenge a system that has already won in the courts.”

The governor is running for re-election, and educational unions support her Democratic challenger, Gary King.

The department’s regulations, the lawsuit said, “are so comprehensive, and leave so little for local school superintendents to do, that they can only be seen as ‘policies, guidelines, and procedures’ that, by statute, can only be adopted by local school superintendents themselves.”

Half of a teacher’s evaluation is based on student achievement improvement on tests. The evaluations also include classroom observations of teachers by administrators and other factors such as surveys of students and parents.

The previous evaluation system took a pass-fail approach of whether a teacher was competent or not, based on what administrators observed during classroom visits.

A low rating under the new evaluation plan, the lawsuit said, can provide grounds for firing a teacher or not renewing their contract for another school year.

The lawsuit said the evaluation regulations “rob teachers of their professional autonomy and subject them to a rigid, top-down system of evaluations based on controversial and arbitrary measures of ‘student growth’ derived from standardized test scores - measures that, according to recent studies, are not meaningfully associated with the quality of instruction.”

A 2003 law calls for the department to establish “minimum highly objective uniform statewide standards” for evaluating teachers, according to the lawsuit, but it directs local school districts to adopt the policies and procedures for evaluations. Martinez took office in 2011.

The lawsuit contends the administration has exceeded its authority in violation of the constitutional separation of powers doctrine.

The department announced the first results of the evaluation system earlier this year for almost 21,000 teachers across the state. Nearly three-fourths of teachers were evaluated as effective, highly effective or exemplary. Twenty-three percent were rated minimally effective and 4 percent were deemed to be ineffective.

A judge in Albuquerque rejected a request last year by other educational unions and lawmakers to block the implementation of the evaluation system. The ruling has been appealed.


Follow Barry Massey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bmasseyAP

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